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They will probably start out as small and experimental proof of concept vessels, that provide the means for testing the technology and determining just how autonomous they can actually be. Like the self-driving trucks of today, they will undoubtedly need human input to cope with certain tasks. So, they will in effect be drone ships remotely piloted from shore.
Remotely piloted semi-independent vessels have a number of advantages, not the least of which is saving on personnel. While modern digital technology has reduced the number of crew on the modern ocean going ship, drone ships offer the possibility of reducing the crew down to one person, steering the ship from a remote location.
Unmanned ships make possible the first true rethinking of naval architecture since the development of steam. Since the interior of the ship need not be designed for human comfort, there is more room for machinery and, more importantly, cargo. At least one third of the average cargo vessel is dedicated to human habitation, and so a redesign of this now free space can enable the carrying of greater loads.
However, the advent of drone ships means that regulations must be enhanced to ensure safe operation. These regulations must be uniform from country to country in order to assure secure ocean passage and the safe entering and leaving of harbors. This means that flags of convenience will become a thing of the past. It will no longer be possible to save money and avoid safety regulations by registering a ship in a country with low maritime standards. And this is probably a good thing.
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